The First Sixteen is Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's podcast series that explores the freshest ideas in agriculture and food. Each episode explores a single topic in depth—digging deep into new practices, innovative ideas, and their impacts on the industry. Learn about Canada's agricultural sector from the people making the breakthroughs and knocking down the barriers! Farmers and foodies, scientists and leaders, and anyone with an eye on the future of the sector—this podcast is for you! New episodes every two weeks.
Episode 018 - Resolving soil nutrient loss and pollution in Lake Erie
From buckwheat and bees to cover crops and no-till practices, we explore how Henry Denotter, a farmer on the Wigle Creek watershed, and Pamela Joosse, a soil and nutrient management specialist, worked together to reduce pollution in Lake Erie as part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Living Labs program.
Henry: We need to take care of water quality. Water quality is going to directly affect the Great Lakes. If we choke the Great Lakes, we're going backwards.
Pamela: All kinds of agencies and, you know, municipalities and organizations are looking to agriculture to make a difference in the Lake Erie basin.
Sara: Welcome back to the First Sixteen. I'm Sara Boivin-Chabot.
Kirk: And I'm Kirk Finken. Today, we're touching on an initiative that's come up once before.
Sara: Does that make this a sequel? A spin-off?
Kirk: Hmm, well, how about we call it an expanded universe. The universe of Living Labs.
Sara: In a past episode, we talked about the Living Labs project in Quebec, an initiative that brings farmers and scientists together to tackle agricultural and environmental issues.
Kirk: This time, we're hopping over to Ontario to check out their project on preserving soil and water quality in and around Lake Erie.
Sara: When it rains on large farm fields, the excess water washes fertilizers and manure into streams, which then flow into the lake. This feeds into an outbreak of algae.
Kirk: And that algae can make the water toxic for fish, wildlife, and even humans.
Sara: But researchers and producers are working hard on the solution. Those voices you heard were Henry Denotter, a farmer and participant from Essex County, and Pamela Joosse, the project co-lead from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. They've come together to figure out how Lake Erie is being affected by agricultural run-off, and what can be done to prevent it.
Kirk: You know, Sara, I really love projects like this because they're all about collaboration. And when we did the interviews, I could tell just how closely they had been working together just by the way that they answered the questions. They were totally on the same wavelength.
Sara: For sure! So let's do something a bit different and hear from them together.
Kirk: All right – Henry, Pamela, over to you.
Henry: So, my name's Henry Denotter, and I run Denotter Farms with my wife and my son. We are a farming operation. We take care of growing corn, wheat, soybeans, and we've entered into buckwheat in the last few years to try it as a ... to create a fourth crop in a three crop rotation.
Pamela: Yeah. So Henry is located in the Wigle Creek watershed, and that watershed drains directly into the western Lake Erie basin. And that's where you hear in the news all the time that harmful algal blooms typically occur. We have a field monitoring equipment set up in three of Henry's fields. What's unique about it is that each of these fields grows one of his crops that are in rotation, so he grows corn, soybean, and winter wheat. And these are the most commonly grown field crops in Ontario. What we're able to do and where it's located, we're able to monitor both the surface and the tile water from each of those fields. And that's often hard to find in the landscape. You don't always get the right geography to be able to do that, because we know water moves over the surface and it also moves through tiles, and a lot of it moves through tiles in the Essex region. So it's important that we try to understand which way the water is flowing, because that's the way the nutrients move off the land.
Sara: When you talk about nutrients, what specifically are you referring to?
Pamela: So we're primarily focused on monitoring forms of phosphorus because that's the main nutrient of concern for algal blooms in Lake Erie, and in the western Lake Erie basin in particular. We're also monitoring nitrogen and carbon forms because these are also important to understanding the stream water quality and the ratio of these nutrients, nitrogen phosphorus in particular, can affect the species and toxicity of algal blooms.
Henry: Yes, we need to look after the Great Lakes because there's lots of things going on out there: algae blooms, different water quality issues, and the issues start in the agricultural land. Like, trying to keep everything there. We all need to be economically sustainable. We need to grow a crop. We need to make some money at it, and so we can expand and improve. But you know what, if we choke the Great Lakes, we're not accomplishing anything, we're going backwards.
Pamela: It's, maybe as Henry colloquially said, we've messed up Lake Erie. It's kind of come back with a vengeance, right? The Lake Erie basin has a lot of agricultural land use and a lot of different types of agriculture, one of the most productive parts of Canada. And so we know if we want agriculture to continue there, it needs to be doing it in a very sustainable way because it's surrounded by these lakes, with the most sensitive being Lake Erie that's really getting the brunt of, kind of, climate change populations and runoff at the same time. I think Living Labs has the opportunity to accelerate adoption because the farmers are seeing the research occur firsthand and the scientists are working on real farms and that, in the end, it's the real farms where the changes have to happen. And so if we can overcome some of the questions or hesitation that farmers have and really show benefits to some of these practices, I think that's going to just, give a lot more credence . . . enthusiasm . . . evidence is the term we like to use, but it's confidence in the practice is what farmers are looking for. They want to have the confidence that this is going to be the right thing to do. They're still going to be able to make money. They understand the level of risk associated with it and are willing to take it or not, and understand the long term or short term benefits that are there.
Kirk: Now Henry, your operation is a few generations deep, isn't it? Do you remember when you started test-driving these sustainable practices?
Henry: Well, you know, the first ... I guess the first time that we did a lot of changes was close to about 25 years ago when I suggested to my dad that, and him and I were farming together, that we needed to reduce tillage. We're doing way too much tillage. There's too much soil leaving the field. We've got to make a few changes here. And I think equipment technology has expanded to a point that we can eliminate tillage and possibly even like, don't till, no till. Of course, my dad was used to, you know, back in the old country, if they didn't get the corner of the field worked up, you got sent out there with a shovel. You had to go and spit it over by hand and fill that corner like that. But so, you know, like, you have to get away from that thinking. And he finally let me try it. We had a planter that I've done some work on, and I said, "this thing will plant no-till." So I no-tilled a piece of soybeans. Had to do it behind the bush where nobody could see it. And we planted soybeans. You know, made a ton of mistakes, but we got them in the ground, sprayed them, got them a big paddock. But basically my field outyielded the one that was done the way he wanted by about 10 bushels, which was incredible and plus all the work we saved. We didn't do anything. We just basically pulled a planter through the field, planted it, sprayed it, then got soybeans. So that's where it starts. So then he kinda says, "you know, maybe we should look at this a little bit more," and it took about two years. And the next thing you know, we had a big 19 row no-till soybean plant. And that's all progressed and that was over twenty five years ago. So now we try and no-till pretty well everything, everything is geared to go no-till.
Pamela: Yeah, Henry is doing a couple really important things that are good practices that we would recommend to a lot of farmers to do. One is reducing his tillage, which creates good soil structure and leaves some residue on the surface. That lets the water infiltrate and holds any particulates that, phosphorous is also attached to particulates, holds it in the field. The other thing that he does is places his fertilizer below the surface. Especially when you're no-tilling, it's important to move the fertilizer below the surface because you're usually not disturbing that soil at all and mixing things up. And if you leave that fertilizer at the surface, it's very easily washed off the surface, so he gets it under the ground, and that's a good thing. The other thing he's doing is regularly using cover crops in his cash crops. So sometimes that's over winter just to leave roots in the soil after harvest. But he's also experimenting with things like buckwheat, which serves as another cash source but also enhances pollinator habitat.
Henry: That was something I wanted to do five years ago and I had some talks. I was sitting on a couple different boards in Guelph, and I would sit and talk to some of these older guys. And I said, you know, "You guys ever grow buckwheat?" And one guy looked at me and said, "When are you going to get the goat?" I says, "Goats?" He says, "Buckwheat a poor man's crop, you know, you grow that and you get goats 'cause it doesn't cost you any money."
Kirk: Haha, goats! Yeah, not exactly what you want to hear when you're talking about a new crop.
Sara: Not unless you're into goat husbandry, for sure. But it's worked out very well for Henry.
Henry: Last year was a great year for buckwheat. So was the year before. There's no room to put a cover crop in between soybean plants because all it's doing is adding something that you don't want. But anyhow, that's where the buckwheat comes back in. So that's the fourth crop on a three crop rotation. The fact that it grows so fast, and we can get that in the ground in a timely matter and get it growing. And we can basically take a day off when we're combining beans or doing corn, clean out the combine, desiccate the buckwheat, and we'll cut all the buckwheat at once. It's usually anywhere between 150 and 200 acres if the plants are growing right. But we also want to take that buckwheat idea. We bring bees in. I've got an arrangement with a bee guy, brings bees in. That is just another benefit that is basically environmentally friendly because I've got these bees working away pollinating all this buckwheat. The bee guy gets buckwheat honey. At this time of the year, there's a lot less flowering going on. So those bees get in there and just basically go nuts. They think it's just like... Great. So you'll see a 50 acre field and there'll be 50, 60 different beehives sitting across the end of the field. And it's almost noisy when the sun's out and they're working, it's a noisy little place. But again, that's just a side benefit. We're trying to promote that, the fact that you can basically work with another group and they can get some benefit out of it. You get two benefits. You get the fact that you're doing a good job pollinating, and he's getting the bees working, getting the buckwheat honey out of it.
Sara: It sounds like there's collaboration all over the place, and it's really key for both profitability and sustainability in agriculture.
Kirk: Yeah, definitely. But let's go back to Pamela for a second and talk about the science side of this team-up. What does the Living Labs project mean to you, Pamela?
Pamela: I think for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, this is a bit of returning to their roots in some ways. We've had sort of a history of the last 20 years or so now of really, I'll say, intense and high level, we'll say upstream research, but haven't been in the field as much. And so I think there's loss of awareness of what Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists are doing sometimes. And so I think this is a real opportunity to put people together, the researchers and the farmers to sort of work together on these projects. So not just see it presented at a conference, or we have the Southwest Ag conference or come to a Harrow Field Day, an open house and see the plots. When things are on a farmer's field and in a working landscape, it's, I think, more impactful for the farmers and also helps the scientists understand the complexities of the decisions that the farmers are having to make every day. In science, we'd like to be very reductionist, and one of the biggest challenges with Living Labs in a real system is finding controls and finding the comparisons, because farmers have their one system. And so one of the neat things we're able to do with the current Living Lab project is have a real variety of ways that farmers are trying to do continuous cover and reduce tillage and kind of compare them between each other, not just on the one farm. And so it's a bigger scale project for both the researchers because they see this real variety of things out there. But it's also a challenge because there's so much variety and variability as we try to use our scientific methods to find that statistics and evidence that these farmers are really looking for. We wanted to focus in Living Labs to be the innovation. And so everybody in some ways is an innovator. The farmer has an innovative practice. He's trying, but the scientists are also being innovative in trying different ways of studying these practices. We've got new techniques, new kinds of tools and systems to, sort of, statistics, to try to understand systems now much better than, you know, even 10 years ago. What's unique, sort of, about the Living Lab approach is that co-development term, which means we can ask questions together. We did ask each of the farmers, what was their main question and what did they want to know? And the scientists involved, who got involved in Living Labs and came forward, really wanted to know what the farmers want to know. They did understand that the adoption is going to be driven by answering the farmers questions. Like what's stopping them from doing more of this or other farmers doing this? So they want to understand the questions with the point that if they can answer those, that will help overcome some of the barriers that are keeping some people from adopting some of these practices.
Sara: Does Henry help to provide these questions?
Pamela: Yes, Henry loves to spend time with our team and try to understand what we're trying to figure out, and us trying to figure out what he's figuring out. How can I say that better? Henry likes to challenge us. He's always, "Why are you measuring that?" You know? "Can I help you with something," you know? "Can we do this too?" You know, I think if we had the resources to measure everything, I think he would love it.
Henry: I really enjoy the part when I can get them out of their office, away from their laptop, get them in a pair of boots or pants and say, OK. And if it's cold, like, you know, maybe a coat, two coats. I get them out standing in the field, out standing in the field, looking. This is where it all starts. Like the other . . . last week, I had six different environmental people out. Most of them are number crunchers, basically just take numbers and homogenize and make data and go from there. So I tossed one a cob of corn. He kind of looked at it. I says "That's where it all starts. That's what you need to get. You need to get that land to grow, that crop, get that cob of corn growing. And, you know, that's what all the data has to come to." So that's the part I really enjoy about the scientists or whatever. I know they can adjust, quantify my numbers, say, yes, this is great, this is neat, but I like getting them out and getting them into the field and to see what's going on.
Pamela: In Living Labs it's kind of neat because there are some new relationships in terms of people working together for the first time or adding, knowing about the work that someone else is doing in their own department, right? People are saying, you know, we have a problem we really want to solve, and what can we throw at it?
Kirk: Well, I think that might have been the easiest episode I've ever hosted.
Sara: I think so. They had so much to share. You can really picture the knowledge exchange that's happening on the ground with the Living Labs project.
Kirk: And you know, we got some great tips on sustainable agriculture, tested and approved by both scientists and farmers. You know, just reducing your tillage, placing your fertilizer below the surface of the soil…
Sara: And don't forget the buckwheat.
Kirk: Of course! Buckwheat and bees. I love buckwheat pancakes, buckwheat honey. Two great Canadian products.
Sara: In a previous life, my job was to try and create this relation between the producers and the researchers, but a decade ago it was much harder than it was now. That's super ... like, this project is like a dream come true.
Kirk: We'll have to do a follow-up episode in the future and see where they're at.
Sara: Another one for the Living Labs Expanded Universe?
Kirk: Oh yeah. Coming soon to a podcast platform near you.
Sara: But until then, you know what to do.
Kirk: Try something new. And, you know what, try some buckwheat pancakes. Buckwheat honey.
Sara: Yeah, but not together. Separate.
Kirk: Yeah, well—
Sara: It's a bit intense.
Kirk: It would be, but why not?
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